Credit: Wendy Redfern/Redferns
by M.G. Mailloux Featured Kicking the Canon Music

MGMT | Oracular Spectacular

March 22, 2021

Totally improbably, MGMT still exists, and not just that, but they also continue to build and better their sound, having released three albums since their full-length debut Oracular Spectacular, each reconceiving and honing what they produced on that iconic 2007 release. It’s a rather incredible accomplishment, really, to get out from under an early project so firmly associated with a specific moment in recent history, but impressively, the electro-pop duo have never appeared too rattled by their brush with cultural ubiquity. MGMT are a band fortunate enough to have released the music that they did at the time that they did, but even in their most dated material, it’s clear that they had a massive, defined vision from the inception of the project.

And indeed, dated is a suitable and valid way to describe Oracular Spectacular, an album that now plainly stands as a time capsule of 2007-2008 America in sonic form, its songs speaking to the anxieties and optimisms wrapped into the millennial coming-of-age, as demarcated by the election of Barack Obama. That said, Oracular Spectacular strays far from any declarations of ideological allegiance, its disconnect from the particulars of then-contemporary reality suggesting a lack of motivation on the band’s part in taking up the mantle of generational voice. But what may have originated coincidentally, ended up making a good amount of sense — the songs present as decadent celebrations of celebration, but complicated by newly-crystallizing generational angst, immaturely articulated.

Oracular Spectacular is an album defined by its singles first and foremost — “Time to Pretend”, “Electric Feel,” and “Kids” — released as such throughout 2008, months after the album actually dropped. MGMT found little success in their initial attempt to sell Oracular Spectacular as a whole work, but well-placed music cues in now forgotten Hollywood films like Sean Anders’ Sex Drive and Robert Luketic’s 21 helped make “Time to Pretend” inescapable; “Electric Feel” and “Kids” would achieve similar pop dominance in the months following (all three songs famously received the Gossip Girl cosign early in that show’s run). Re-approaching these tracks today, it’s obvious that MGMT are singular pop songwriters, these singles specifically speaking to a keen awareness of how to entice an audience, presenting simple, confident hooks up front that expand out into recognizable synth melodies. It’s also obvious that Oracular Spectacular is the band’s first album, its liberal arts, college campus origins easily discernible. Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser had formed their group five years prior while attending Wesleyan University as undergrads, and the very first song they composed together was “Kids.” That song, along with “Time to Pretend,” would end up recorded for a 2005 EP also titled Time to Pretend, before both were re-recorded in their Oracular Spectacular versions, which all makes perfect sense — the cuts are so crafted and memorable, yet purely juvenile in lyric and sentiment. 

VanWyngarden has openly confirmed “Time to Pretend” as the album’s thesis, and why shouldn’t he? Sequenced as the opener, the song plainly outlines a classic “Better to burn out than to fade away” rockstar narrative, VanWyngarden aloofly bemoaning the inevitability of it all while reflecting on the simplicity of youth. It’s really corny material that really resonated in its moment, (maybe accidentally) tapping into that era of American culture’s most striking contradictions. Oracular Spectacular will most immediately be remembered as a party record (or is it a record of partying?), and that legacy is indisputable, the neo-hippie, new sincerity  aesthetics of the album surely the point of origin for any number of “indie pop,” EDM, and/or folk revivalist acts that came about in the years following, not to mention a decade’s worth of music festival culture and fashion (this album’s cover features Goldwasser in full appropriation-wear, VanWyngarden in markedly more tasteful neon boardshorts). But this is also an album skeptical of all those things too, one that recognizes that the American millennial coming-of-age didn’t inherently indicate a meaningful shift in societal order. While there are tracks like “Electric Feel” that advocate for doing what you feel, or the cloying “The Youth,” tellingly used over the end credits of Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, other tracks like “Weekend Wars” and the acoustic “Pieces of What” offer credible (melodramatic) points of contradiction to these more starry-eyed moments, acknowledging the dissatisfactions and uncertainties underpinning their present moment. The projects that have followed Oracular Spectacular assert MGMT as more firmly interested in exploring the latter tone, balancing out slick synth melodies with contemporary pessimism, and making room for more confrontational abstractions. VanWyngarden and Goldwasser didn’t waste much time putting Oracular Spectacular behind them (as of the tour for their third album, MGMT, the duo no longer plays “Kids” live), and while they’re savvy to do so, it’s hard to resent this album’s success, a distinctive early effort that only appears to be passively designed.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.